Editors note: This article was originally published in October 2011 after the death of Indian ghazal king Jasjit Singh. We reproduce it on the occasion of his 72nd birth anniversary.
Every Indian of a certain age probably has a Jagjit Singh album stashed away somewhere.
Other singers gave us songs. But Jagjit Singh gave us the Jagjit Singh sound. Make that the Jagjit Singh experience – silken, soothing, heartfelt, almost evergreen.
He was the great survivor. And the shock of his death at 70 is really that he was 70. When did that happen?
It seemed like he could croon Patta Patta Boota Boota forever. And the rest of us could hum along and pretend that time was not passing us by. He was a sort of elixir in an audio-cassette, a bit of a guilty pleasure.
For many of us, growing up far away from the decaying splendour of Lucknow, Urdu poetry was a rarefied art form to be admired but not absorbed. We just didn’t understand enough, we watched the waah-waahs from afar and felt too intimidated to even admit how little we understood.
Jagjit Singh made the Ghazal mass-market whether you were in Chennai or Kolkata or Patiala. You could disparage it as Ghazal for Dummies but it was a huge secret relief to millions who had always felt shairi-outsiders.
It probably didn’t hurt that a time when Pakistani singers held the authenticity card as far as Ghazals went, Singh was a Sikh from Ganganagar, Rajasthan. He became our Indian Ghazal King.
Now with his death, his Ghazal King title is being splashed across the headlines as a sort of badge of honour, his crowing glory. But he was not quite Ghazal royalty like a Ghulam Ali or Mehdi Hasan. He was a king in a more commercial sense. The Prime Minister mourned the passing of Singh’s “golden voice.” But that golden voice was also his Midas touch. It turned Ghazal into something of a mass-market money-spinning commodity that would become the stuff of jingles and Archies cards. Ghazal went pop and his “golden voice” became a sort of emotional salve for millions. It ceased to surprise or make us think or push us into new musical frontiers. Instead it lulled us, seduced us with its pop version of high Urdu romance.
Jagjit and Chitra were the First Couple of that love story. They became the first enormously successful husband-wife singing duo who really sold us on the romance of the Ghazal. Young couples loved to go to their concert because there was something fairy tale about hearing this young real-life couple singing Ahista ahista or Hothon se choo lo tum to each other. Critics could raise their eyebrows about her voice and technique but it didn’t matter. They were a package, a Ghazal come to life. In their heyday they epitomised a silken Bollywoodish idea of romance that kept going on and on through the 70s and 80s.
That’s why their 18-year-old son’s death in 1990 was a double tragedy. It punctured that romance. And Chitra stopped performing in public.
Jagjit Singh soldiered on, falling back on his Punjabi roots with Sikh gurbani. He even looked to reinvent himself by taking on more socially relevant songs in Cry for Cry and Mirage. But he seemed a lonely man singing by himself.
But he was always a serious singer. Singh said in an interview “One should learn music for 15 years before actually trying their hand at singing Ghazals." Perhaps it’s not his fault that he made it sound so effortless, that every two-bit singer decided they could churn out their own Ghazal album.
Now with his death, as we scan the obituaries we learn more about the effort it took for him to sound so effortless.
His parents wanted him to become an IAS officer but he struggled to find a footing in music, singing for Jalandhar All India Radio. He failed when he first came to Mumbai. He remade himself, losing his turban and hair. At a time when musical success meant Bollywood playback, he made his mark in a genre that was struggling to stay alive – Ghazals.
Ironically that success led him back full circle to Bollywood. With films like Arth and Saath Saath, he was suddenly the thinking actor’s singing voice, a different kind of singer for a different kind of film. It didn’t matter that his Ghazals always sounded the same whether it was the soundtrack for a modern collapsing marriage like Arth or a period piece like Mirza Ghalib .
The make-believe of Jagjit Singh was always in the music. The obituaries will talk about his hits, his awards, his accomplishments. What they won’t say is songs mark time because our memories are made of songs, even the most non-musical of us. As the cliché goes a singer never dies. He always lives on in his music. Jagjit Singh’s music will remain eternally preserved on CDs, iPods and YouTube.
But today we all got older.
Tum Ko Dekha To Ye Khayal Aaya
Zindagi Dhoop Tum Ghana Chaaya
Aaj Phir Dil Ne Ek Tamanna Ki
Aaj Phir Dil Ko Humne Samjhaaya
Tum Chale Jaaoge To Sochenge
Humne Kya Khoya Humne Kya Paya